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Paris of the Prairie: Exploring Chicago’s Rich Architectural Past and Present

Chicago Architecture - Drawbridge over the Chicago River

Paris has the Louvre, New York has the Met, and Chicago has, well… Chicago. In the Windy City, art isn’t just in its famous Art Institute, it’s everywhere thanks to the rich architecture citywide. Anywhere you walk, there is an artistic treasure inviting you to simply look up and notice it.

“We often say that all of Chicago is our museum,” says Dan O’Connell, of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF). “Unlike many other places, Chicago has managed to maintain its variety of architectural styles as fully functioning spaces.”

It was the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which destroyed three square miles, that allowed popular architect Daniel Burnham to create a plan for the city. He envisioned it as the “Paris of the Prairie.” Because Chicago was an established commerce center architects, engineers, builders and, most importantly, money, flowed to the city to help it rebuild. The result was the invention of the skyscraper, a flurry of construction, and the establishment of Chicago as the place for architects to show off their designs.

This summer, a new building, the Chicago Architecture Center, joins the mix, offering interactive exhibits about architecture and serving as the home for more than 85 architectural tours the CAF offers around Chicago.

The Four Seasons Hotel Downtown Chicago IL

The Four Seasons Chicago

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DESIGN-WORTHY STAYS
For design lovers, viewing Chicago through the lens of its architecture is an ideal way to experience the city. For all-out glam, make the Four Seasons your base. Housed in the post-modern 900 Michigan Avenue building, the skyscraper’s architects paid homage to Viennese Secessionist style with a wide, arched roof and four ornamental lanterns on top. Public spaces dazzle with art from prolific artists like Andy Warhol and Henri Matisse, and the spacious guest rooms are soothing with grey tones.

Request Lakeview accommodations and you’ll also have the iconic John Hancock Building directly outside your window. Don’t miss dining at Allium for spectacular views and the chance to feast on lobster nachos, or the very local Chicago breakfast dog in the morning.

Chicago Athletic Association Hotel - Drawing Room

Chicago Athletic Association-Drawing Room

Boutique hotel fans will love the Chicago Athletic Association. Established in 1893 for the World’s Fair, it was an elite private club, until two years ago when it opened as a hotel, letting the public see its gorgeous dark wood, mosaic tile, and swanky interior for the first time. The building was patterned after the Doges Palace in Venice, so the façade is extravagant.

Inside, guests can enjoy the game room, popular rooftop terrace, or dinner in the Cherry Circle Room, where Chicago’s elite made many a backdoor deal back in the day. Visit the location on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park, where the band shell is also a significant architectural feat designed by famed architect Richard Meier in 2015.

Allegro Hotel Lobby Chicago

Allegro Hotel Lobby – Photo by Cris Molina

For the best mix of luxury and value, book the Kimpton Hotel Allegro housed in a 1926 Art Deco building. Renovated in 2015, the hotel seamlessly blends the old and the new in Chicago’s Theater district. The rooms pay homage to the theater, including one that is designed to look like a dressing room.

City Winery Chicago IL - At Night

City Winery at night

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ARCHITECTURAL TOURS
To get a fantastic overview of the iconic buildings in the city, the CAF’s river cruise is an ideal way to ease into Chicago’s design history. The 90-minute tour is led by a docent and highlights buildings from 1908 to massive skyscrapers built in 2017. Grab a glass of bubbly at the nearby City Winery Riverwalk after the tour to continue to drink in the view.

32nd floor view - courtesy of Inside Chicago Walking Tours

32nd Floor View-Courtesy of Inside Chicago Walking Tours

While floating by the Chicago skyline is interesting, seeing the city on foot with Inside Chicago Walking Tours is a must. Owner Hillary Marzec’s passion is infectious, and her insider knowledge and connections mean guests have the opportunity to view the interior architecture and design of several buildings along the two-hour walking tour.

From viewing the only Frank Lloyd Wright space in downtown or priceless Tiffany-stained glass mosaics in the Marquette building, to riding in elevators so old they’re still run by an operator, the tour helps make sense of the overwhelming number of beautiful buildings in the city. If you want to immerse yourself in the work of iconic Frank Lloyd Wright, check out a self-guided or bicycle tour that starts at Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, FLW’s first home and studio. It’s a spectacular opportunity to see a body of work in local neighborhoods.

Seeing the city skyline from above is another must do, and with the 360 Chicago experience it’s easy. Located 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile in the famous John Hancock Building, the observation platform offers sweeping views of the city and Lake Michigan. Thrill seekers will love Tilt, a moving platform that literally tilts visitors at a 30-degree angle off the 94th floor.

With more than 70 distinct neighborhoods, Chicago’s architectural diversity is on display in areas far beyond the Loop or Gold Coast. Simply stroll down Lincoln Park’s Fullerton Avenue, explore Logan Square, Pilsen, or Humboldt Park to see a wide variety of design styles and to get the flavor of the city through the many boutiques, cafés, and neighborhood hangouts, chances are you’ll bump into a neighborhood festival any time this summer.

Firehouse Bar Room Chicago IL

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In addition to being an architecture town, Chicago is arguably one of the top foodie cities in the country. Combine both by dining at top tables in historic buildings.

Old-school service, dishes cooked to perfection, and a gorgeous setting collide at the Chicago Firehouse. Located in the South Loop in a 112-year old firehouse, the interior, which was nominated for a 2018 James Beard Design Award, features a horseshoe bar, tin ceilings, and Tiffany glazed tile walls. Ironically, a 2014 fire gutted the interior and the restaurant just reopened last year.

Atwoods Restaurant Chicago IL - Main Dining Room

Atwood Restaurant-Main Dining Room

Located in the Reliance, a National Landmark building, Atwood serves modern American creations with a strong cocktail program celebrating 50 of the best cocktails from the past 200 years.

The Lobby Restaurant Peninsula Hotel Chicago IL

The Lobby / Peninsula Hotel Restaurant

With a view of the Magnificent Mile from its Art Deco-inspired building, dining at the Peninsula Hotel is a treat. If the weather is good, opt for the Shanghai Terrace to experience some of the city’s best dim sum, or if rain or chilly temperatures pervade the Lobby Bar restaurant has floor-to-ceiling views of the city, the perfect locale for the Peninsula’s legendary afternoon tea.

Chicago is truly a city that epitomizes American ingenuity. In just over 120 years, the city went from debuting the world’s first skyscraper, which was 10-stories tall, to engineering wonders that now soar nearly a half-mile skyward. It’s proof that architecture is truly the language that generations speak to each other through the perfect lens to view America’s “Second City.”

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